When a colleague of mine in the mission field was preparing to move back home, she gave me a stack of old Mutuality magazines. I was interested enough to take time to read through them, and as I did, some of the personal stories touched me deeply. I found my own story in the writings of women who had been hurt in ministry, and I realized I had discovered a revolutionary message. I felt a sense of freedom and joy well up inside me. When I saw male-female relationships from an egalitarian perspective, I felt like I was encountering a complete gospel for the first time. Seven years have passed since CBE’s message first touched me, and I have been privileged to work with other egalitarians and share the vision of biblical equality with Christians in my home country, Finland.
Leading the Way in Gender Equality
Egalitarian values are deeply rooted in Finnish society, and democracy and equal rights for everyone are taken for granted. In 1906, Finland became the first country in the world to adopt universal suffrage (the third to grant women’s suffrage). Our society has long respected hard work and has given women and mothers the opportunity to work outside the home alongside men—we have a strong tradition of “working great-grandmothers.” After World War II, both working men and women were needed to bring the nation back to its feet, and now this is considered normal. Teamwork has replaced authoritarianism as the preferred leadership model in the workplace. Finland now works with other countries to introduce gender equality into development work all around the world. Our country is the last place you would expect to find inequality. Sadly, gender equality is not a given in some parts of Finnish society.
Finland’s churches do not fully reflect society’s equality and freedom. Seventy-six percent of Finland’s 5.4 million residents belong to the Lutheran Church of Finland. The Lutheran Church, which is also the state church, has been ordaining women since the 1980’s, and most Finnish Christians are egalitarian. But some smaller denominations, such as Catholics, the Orthodox Church, Pentecostals, and Baptists are less open to the leadership and full equality of women. Within these minority churches, many are passively open to equality, but only a few have organized to seek reform. This small group faces a number of challenges.
Obstacles to Biblical Equality
One challenge is division among Christians. Some evangelicals argue that the Lutheran ordination of female priests, which began in 1988, was the beginning of a movement away from orthodoxy. Meanwhile, denominations like the Pentecostals have a different history. Women have been active as evangelists and missionaries since beginning of the Pentecostal movement in the early nineteen hundreds, but having female pastors or elders is still a sensitive issue. Many churches have older, influential leaders who are a strong voice for traditional, patriarchal thinking. I believe that many Finnish Christians are conflicted—they are very egalitarian in their hearts and actions (many marriages are functionally egalitarian), but they lack courage to speak out in favor of their beliefs. The conflict between hierarchy and equality carries over into church teachings about marriage as well.
For the most part, these churches still support a hierarchical or soft hierarchical model of marriage, which can be damaging. One pastor told me that the “old fashioned” teaching causes concerns in families, because parents are not operating according to their skills or call, but according to gender expectations. This pressures men to be the head of the home. Some men hide all their weakness or sensitivity in order to appear strong. Therefore, the vulnerability, honesty, and emotional bonds they might offer their children are neglected. Meanwhile, women are frequently more active in the church and take initiative in the family’s spiritual life at home. The mother is often the one who bears the main responsibility of discipleship in the family. Hierarchical teachings lead to imbalance in marriage. Instead, men need to join their wives in the discipleship of their children and women need to join men in leading the household. Egalitarian pastors and leaders are working to stress the importance of mutual commitment for parenting and leading at home. But change can be very difficult.
In some churches it can be risky to speak about biblical equality, and a female pastor who does so may lose her chance to work in pastoral ministry. Apathy is also a problem. Many people believe that since we have had female pastors in the Lutheran Church for years and because even our school books picture female priests, the issue is resolved. But this is a delusion; the egalitarian message is not practiced in every denomination. There are churches that allow women to do everything except to hold a position of leadership over a whole congregation. And, even though women are educated in the Bible schools, finding their way into a ministry can prove very difficult. Finally, within the Lutheran Church, where the issue of women’s ordination is settled, homosexuality has become a major issue. Some evangelicals believe that ordaining women is a pathway to embracing homosexuality in the church. And, there is a risk that the egalitarian message will be drowned out by the loud, heated, national discussion on homosexuality. Articulating biblical equality clearly in this climate is an ongoing challenge for egalitarians. I believe with God’s help, we are equal to the task.
The Truth Shall Set You Free
Jesus says that truth shall set us free (John 8:32). We need the truth that all people are redeemed and restored to reflect God’s image in this world and in the church. Our challenge is to increase awareness about biblical equality and to get church leaders to discuss issues openly. We believe increased awareness and renewed teaching about biblical equality will help it spread to every church.
Finnish egalitarians are working toward this goal in different ways. We are in the process of translating books that present the issue and offer new insights to difficult Bible passages. These will help to address the questions of hermeneutics and biblical scholarship. But we can’t stop there; we need the courage to stand and make our voices heard. There are a few egalitarians that have been active in writing blogs and entering into public discussion, raising questions about equality and gender issues in the Bible. One of these writers is a former marriage counselor and teacher who has actively challenged the Finnish conception of a man as robust and headstrong—someone who doesn’t show his feelings. He has boldly articulated alternatives to the traditional concept of manhood and questioned the rigid expectations of masculinity that are still passed on from one generation of men to the next.
Others of us have held seminars about gender and the Bible, and we hope to partner with churches to hold more extensive seminars in the future. Finnish society’s support for equality is an opportunity for egalitarians. Because both men and women are strongly represented in all levels of decision making in society, we can clearly see the benefits of this model in everyday life. It also provides a chance for egalitarians to learn from and network with other institutions where equality is flourishing.
As Finnish egalitarians continue to speak out, articulate biblical equality, and partner with churches and secular organizations, I believe we will see our society and people around the world impacted for the better. In our society, where divorce is common, we can show the way to balanced relationships that are healthy for all. And as men and women lead the church together, it will more effectively advance God’s kingdom. Their unity will be a model to the world. Finland’s churches, like its government, can lead the world in empowering women. It is my firm belief that side by side, men and women in Finland and across the globe will fight injustice and abuse, and replace it with God’s love.